Summer is a work I composed in 2011 specially for a concert of my choral and vocal music. It uses a beautiful poem by Jean L. Connor, a wonderful Vermont poet who is still with us at the age of 101 as of this writing in summer of 2020. Here is the poem:
should be as this one, suspended
and the slow coming on of stars,
the great bear first, then the jeweled
crown. Let every solstice pause,
linger in a meadow, imagined
or real, blue with lupine,
the fields wide, the self small,
a place afloat between this
fixed earth and the transparencies
of clouds. Give silence room,
there anger seeps away. Out of the hidden,
fireflies may come to semaphore
a blessing. Beneath the deepening sky,
bright wands and an old cartography of peace.
Poem taken from A Cartography of Peace, published by Passager Books, 2005. Copyright 2005 by Jean L. Connor. Used with permission of the poet.
This performance is by Voces Dulcissimae, conducted by Larry Hamberlin
Bridges is a work I wrote in 2011 after Tropical Storm Irene devastated Vermont. I chose the title of this work for string ensemble not just for its literal meaning of spans across bodies of water, many of which had been destroyed by Irene and were rebuilt, but also as a symbol of people working together for the common good. This performance from August 11, 2012 is by Burlington Ensemble.
The Falling of Trees was written in 2007. It was a collaboration between my younger brother Lars and me, created in honor of our older brother Karl, who died from brain cancer in 1998. (Tragically, the same awful disease claimed Lars 20 years later.) Lars wrote the four poems and I wrote the music, including the prelude that preceded the four songs. Here are the texts:
THE FALLING OF TREES
by Lars Nielsen
Stare at me, brother,
Give me your poor refugee thoughts,
Repeat them, and yet forget.
Repeat them, and yet forget.
Your mind frightens,
But your thoughts are not weapons.
We will not bury them.
We will not ban them.
Stare at me, brother.
Others will not travel your jagged crags and sudden drops.
I am not afraid.
Stare at me, brother.
Others avoid you, but I embrace the twists and turns of your trail.
I rejoice in the eddies of your waters,
as we sink into the deep pools of your mind.
Stare at me, brother.
Wander with me through shared memory,
Insist on the peace beyond.
I am not afraid.
Wheelchair-bound, only your lips grin; only your mind moves.
But once you roamed free.
Long ago, you were the ice’s happy warrior, relentlessly graceful.
Your stick and skates pointed the way toward the joys of the cold.
I remember the ice.
Stretched tight over the swamp,
a fevered glow above the ground’s sunken cheeks.
The clack-clack of our curved sticks echoed over the sun-glared corridor.
Divorced from the ground,
our skates paid alimony with their single spare blades.
Like stir-fry boys on our frozen skillet,
Our smoke-still breath rose to the sky.
III. The Appointment
My car slithered up your ice-covered hill.
Half-dressed, half-remembering, you meet me at the door.
Brother, we’re already late.
You tell the doctor that drawing blood hurts.
The pain burns like a beacon in your brain-fog:
Something lives there,
something that grows.
A black-flagged pirate ship’s boarded and captured you,
hijacking memory even of needle-induced pain.
I drive you away,
chattering to keep you warm, but my heart glazes over.
I have made you a stranger, a remnant, now a husk
IV. The Elder’s Loud Smile
I wasn’t ready to outlive my elder.
Not changing your diapers, as you lay,
Not hoisting you, tugging and turning you in your bed.
Not whispering in your ear: “You can let go now.”
I wasn’t ready to outlive my elder.
At the end, you remembered long-ago levees breaking,
but not the falling of nearby trees.
But you know where you are going now.
Ages ago, we fell to earth, and you helped me from the ground.
Someday in the sky, the divine roar of your pleasure will shock generations,
As you take my hand and tug me, your joyous apprentice, to race among the stars.
This performance comes from the May 26, 2019 event that commemorated Lars as a writer, the same event that featured A Psalm for a New Year. The performers are baritone Thomas Beard and the Northern Third Quartet. Here is a link:
A Psalm for a New Year was written in the summer of 2018. The words were by my late brother, Lars, who had just died in June, 2018 from brain cancer. This was the last piece of writing he did before he became too ill to work. The performance is from a commemorative event held to honor Lars’s writing on May 26, 2019. The performance is by Les Voix de Mai (a hand-picked chamber choir), conducted by Jessica Pierpont, with Elizabeth Reid, viola. Here is the text:
A Psalm For a New Year
Thus saith the Lord, and all of us are prophets who speak to the Lord,
In the noise of our selfish shouting and in the deepest secrets of our shy hearts.
The Lord speaks through us and to us and takes the hand of our heart leading us forth to the light of his countenance.
Every day, we go to far shores and the tallest mountains, yet we stand rooted, like the trees of the field and bushes of the vineyard and the stones of the slope.
Master of Life, I have seen the glow in the hills, and I run from it.
Master of Life, I have seen the stars in the sky, and I cower to wait for dawn.
Master of Life, I look at my means, and I stretch my hand out to my ambitions, and I fear I cannot bridge the gap between the two.
Master of Life, may I sing a new song to you every day, as you will not restrain yourself, I, too, will cry out, my travail a transient moan, giving birth to the new.
We ARE islands, and we ARE wilderness, and we need God to be mighty and to raise us up.
Do not, I beg of you, waste the mountains and the herbs; do not remove the water from the islands, nor the eddies that make your pools streams, your streams rivers, your rivers the roaring oceans.
In return, I know I must listen, my senses must be righteous, and while I fear your fury, my faith spreads the bare bread of my courage.
And when I walk, I will fear none of my steps.
And when I walk, I will fear no destinations.
And when I walk, I will fear not the darkness, nor the unknown glow, nor the far towers, nor the watchmen on them, for You will be with me.
And You will unstop my ears so I will hear You and You will take the scales from my eyes so I will see You–
And You will make me plain that I may find the best in me; You will make the croooked within me straight, and You will make smooth my rough places.
This is a “pandemic performance” of my 2020 work for solo flute, Black Venus. The work is inspired by the musical world of Paris in the 1920s and is dedicated to the memory of Josephine Baker, singer, dancer, member of the French Resistance, civil rights advocate and humanitarian. It is performed by flutist Hilary Goldblatt, for whom it was written.
This is the ninth in an ongoing series of blog posts by the people behind the return of A Fleeting Animal in September, 2015.
Being an opera ballet performer and aficionado during my youth, I was intrigued by the opportunity to join the committee helping to produce A Fleeting Animal. I saw the original Judevine play in Hardwick, as well as the more recent one by Lost Nation Theater. This had me wondering how David Budbill’s libretto could be transformed into operatic format by composer Erik Nielsen.
Well, I wasn’t disappointed when I saw a video of the first production and am looking forward to the new live productions in September 2015 at various venues in northern Vermont. The opening scene is riveting, the variety of musical styles provides a “tour” of the seasons of the year, and the libretto kept me spellbound. Antoine singing his lines operatically works for me. The score covers blues, jazz, fiddle tunes, and more contemporary sections, some reminiscent of Britten and Menotti. The staging includes a virtual Greek chorus, providing yet another dimension.
A critical component of the experience of this work is how it shakes me from the sheltered state so many of us enjoy. Like others, I am “comfortably numb,” quoting Pink Floyd, and enjoying life in a country free of the scourge of war—or so it might appear. I can’t imagine what it would be like to serve on a battlefield, whether it be in a jungle, the mountains, desert, or a town or city. But I see some of the effects war has on people who have been there–from my dad being injured at the Battle of the Bulge and reluctant to talk about it, to friends who must face Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), brain injuries, and loss of limbs on an ongoing basis. The lasting emotional effects of wartime are palpable in this opera.
The production will also spur additional activities to raise awareness of PTSD throughout northern Vermont and especially in the performance communities of Barre, Hardwick, and Randolph. We’re planning some art exhibits. Discussion groups will be formed after certain performances to give people an opportunity to share and talk through their experiences. The hope is that communities will support the veterans in their midst through existing programs and even find some new ways to do so.
Since the opera is based on characters from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, it’s even more personal to us who live here. We witness the love between a recently returned war veteran and a young single mother. We see how coping with tragedy is different for each person. We learn about ourselves and how we can help others. We can appreciate the humor, courage, and spiritual message of this work. It is inspiring to me and hope you will be inspired, too, when you experience it.
This is the eighth in an ongoing series of blog posts by the people behind the return of A Fleeting Animal in September, 2015.
Yesterday morning, fourteen months of copying A Fleeting Animal — turning my hand-written score into a music software document — came to an end. I must say I feel a sense of accomplishment, even though, as the title says, this is only the end of the first stage of the process. What was more important for me to notice was how much I am still moved by this piece, almost fifteen years after seeing it for the final time on stage. The end of the first act made me take a deep breath because it was so powerful. Tommy’s death and Grace’s descent into madness at the end of the opera brought me to tears multiple times. I don’t know why this is, but I have an idea.
Earlier this week filmmaker Susan Bettmann, who made the outstanding documentary about pianist Michael Arnowitt, Beyond 88 Keys, came with her crew to interview me. She is making a film about the revival of A Fleeting Animal and all of us at Right Here Productions are thrilled that this will give people an inside look at the process. During our interview I spoke about how much the story, taken from David Budbill’s Judevine, meant to me. It had everything I was looking for in writing an opera: a powerful love story, fascinating and wonderful characters, and a social context that spoke to many of the issues faced by the characters. Those problems are still with us today: the difficulties returning veterans face, mental health issues, rural poverty, racism. The characters, flawed as they (and we) are, bring out our sympathy. We are moved by their stories and troubles that are both specific to Vermont and universal at the same time. It’s this combination of living, breathing characters and the social realities they represent that tapped into a deep well of emotion in me just waiting to be drawn up and turned into music. The fact that the work still moves me so strongly tells me I must have done something right.
But I’m not finished yet. I have learned a great deal about composing in the last 15 years. This has allowed me to see places where I can make the music even more powerful and accessible. The revision process is Stage Two and it begins Monday!
This is the seventh in an ongoing series of blog posts by the people behind the return of A Fleeting Animal in September, 2015.
Nearly a year ago when David Budbill asked me to be on a board to revive A FLEETING ANIMAL after a 15 year hiatus, I said that I had been a huge admirer of his work for over thirty years and gladly accepted. What a year! It has been a privilege to get to know and admire Erik Nielsen. I have had the opportunity to work with an incredibly diverse board with respect and excitement as we set about meeting somewhat lofty goals. AND we are doing it! Our venues are secured; fundraising, though often challenging, is moving forward; musicians and cast members are being hired; and a documentary chronicling our progress is being filmed. Each monthly board meeting seems to end with even greater energy and enthusiasm as we move forward. All of this is enhanced by the positive response from those we approach and add to our A FLEETING ANIMAL community.
I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of bringing this Opera from Judevine back into the public consciousness dealing with issues which, unfortunately, are as pertinent in today’s world as they were fifteen years ago. Perhaps with this production, there can be a further awakening to the needs of suffering individuals all around us which are too often ignored.